Claude Earle Smith Jr. was one of the founders of the modern field of archaeobotany. Known as "Smitty" to his friends, he was born on March 8, 1922, in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in Orlando, Florida. He was trained as an economic botanist at Harvard University, where he earned his bachelor's (1949), master's (1951), and doctorate (1953) in botany.
As an undergraduate student at Harvard in 1941, Smith assisted Richard Evans Schultes in collecting plants in the Colombian Amazon. While in the field, news reached Smith of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and he decided to return home to enlist in the Navy. After the war, he continued his studies at Harvard and, in 1948, he was sent by Paul C. Manglesdorf to excavate Bat Cave, New Mexico, where he and Herbert Dick, another Harvard student, discovered the earliest remains of corn. Smith coauthored with Mangelsdorf "A Discovery of Remains of Prehistoric Maize in New Mexico" (1949). Throughout his career, Smith continued to study the early domestication and distribution of corn and other plants including cotton, avocado, and beans.
With his research focused on archaeologically-recovered plant remains and their usage by humans, Smith served as botanist at various archaeological sites in Latin America, working with Richard MacNeish in Tehuacán Valley; Kent Flannery in Oaxaca Valley; Paul Tolstoy in the Basin of Mexico; Ronald Spores in Nochixtlan; Terence Grieder in La Galgada, Peru; Thomas Lynch in Callejón de Huaylas, Peru; Joyce Marcus in Cañeta Valley, Peru; Anna Roosevelt in the Middle Orinoco area of Venezuela; and Michael J. Snarkis in Costa Rica. He also conducted ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Yucatán, Panama, the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Australia.
From 1953 to 1958, Smith served as assistant curator of botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and as acting director of the Taylor Memorial Arboretum. He was also a curator of botany at the Field Museum of Natural History (1959-1961) and Senior Research Botanist for the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1962-1969). In 1970, Smith took a faculty position in the anthropology and biology departments at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and was acting chair of the anthropology department between 1981 and 1986. He served as president of the Society for Economic Botany in 1979.
At the age of 65, Smith was killed in an automobile accident on October 19, 1987.
Lentz, David L. "C. Earle Smith, Jr. 1922-1987."
42, no. 2 (1988): 284-285.
Schultes, Richard Evans. "How I Met C. Earle Smith."
Journal of Ethnobiology
10, no. 2 (1990): 119-121.
Born on March 8 in Boston, Massachusetts
Studies at Harvard University
Assists Richard Evans Schultes in ethnobotanical collection in Colombian Amazons
Returns to Harvard to continue his studies
Excavates Bat Cave in New Mexico and discovers earliest remains of corn
Earns A.B. cum laude at Harvard
Earns Ph.D. at Harvard University
Consultant for Smith, Kline and French
Acting Director at Taylor Memorial Arboretum
Assistant Curator in the Department of Botany at Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia
Associate Curator in Department of Botany at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
Senior Research Botanist at Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Professor of Anthropology and Botany, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
President of Society for Economic Botany
Killed in automobile accident on October 19